Whitesburg KY
Mostly clear
Mostly clear

The ABC’s of poverty

There’s some real hard-core poverty in Appalachia. Along with 10.9 million other Americans who watched Diane Sawyer’s ABC News special report, “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains,” on February 13, we learned that life in eastern Kentucky can be brutal, especially for children trapped in families addicted to drugs, alcohol, Mountain Dew and other dependencies.

These harsh facts won’t come as news to anyone around here who has eyes to see. And this newspaper, along with many other organizations and individuals, has been trying for decades to call attention to the underlying economic and political reasons why so many people in our beautiful, beloved corner of the world find themselves living lives of quiet desperation. But there’s no denying the power of a national network television program to get the public’s attention — at least briefly — on a scale that no newspaper can ever hope to match. Whether you admired Sawyer’s 20/20 special or hated every minute of it, we should all say a prayer of thanks that there are still television news organizations with the resources and the will to spend nearly two years putting together such a powerful program.

That said, what lessons should we should take away from watching “Children of the Mountains” and pondering the thousands upon thousands of responses — pro and con, anguished and irate, loving and hateful — that the program has generated?

For our part, first, we want to applaud the thoughtful comments we heard on the program (and on a follow-up that aired a week later) from people such as Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, based here in Letcher County, and Steve Cawood, a Pineville attorney and veteran activist who befriended The Eagle way back when.

Davis spoke of the double standard that drives our national conversation: When banks fail it’s a “structural” problem and they deserve a bailout, “but when folks in Appalachia or the inner city are poor, it’s their fault.” Cawood, noting the need to upgrade the nation’s rail system as part of any national recovery strategy, argued for directing more of President Obama’s economic-stimulus funds to Appalachia, with its ample supply of men and women “who could be the welders, be the mechanics, be the tradesmen that could build that equipment.”

Whether the issue is unemployment or education, affordable housing or drug rehabilitation, it’s clear that the struggling community self-help organizations scattered across Appalachia need much more help than they’ve ever received. Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism based at the University of Kentucky, pointed out the irony that “there’s a real shortage of philanthropy in rural America and yet it’s one of the places that needs philanthropy the most.”

All true, and well said. What sticks in our mind, though, is a comment by UK historian Ron Eller. “There are ways to think about the future in the mountains in different kinds of ways than we’ve thought about it in the past,” he told Sawyer. “We just need to be willing to dream.”

A cynic might dismiss that remark as just what you would expect to hear from a bearded academic with limited real-world experience. But we much prefer Eller’s outlook to the statement by Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, reported on our front page last week, that Appalachia is “hopeless.”

Our personal belief is that central Appalachia is a proving ground for the future of the United States. The problems that afflict the region today are the consequences of having been an economic colony ever since the first trainloads of local coal went off to power the industrial revolution that profited so many others. If Appalachia is hopeless, then the rest of the United States can’t be far behind — because the industrial revolution is history, the banking system is in rehab, and the mighty country that Appalachian coal miners worked so hard to make possible is in big trouble.

The good news, we think, is that O’Reilly may be as wrong about Appalachia as he is about most topics. For one thing, this region has more than its share of people who have beaten the odds, overcoming every obstacle in their paths and living lives of self-sufficiency and hard-earned pride. We didn’t see many of them on Sawyer’s show, but we see them every day in our own real world. And we see them as reason for hope.

We also see reason to hope — and we admit that at this point it’s just a hope — that President Obama will prove to be, for the United States in this fretful era, the same kind of leader that President Roosevelt proved to be during the Great Depression. And that leads us back to Ron Eller’s idea that we need to be willing to dream.

Good historian that he is, we hope Professor Eller won’t mind if we do some dreaming about the New Deal, and what it brought to millions of Americans who were just barely hanging on to their last shreds of hope.

One of Roosevelt’s greatest successes — and one that was so important to him that he had it up and running less than six weeks after taking office in 1933 — was the Civilian Conservation Corps. We’ll do a bit of dreaming about a new CCC, and what it could do for Appalachia, in this space next week.

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